Interview #1: Sandy Ho's Rainbow Dumplings
"For me, just the process of making something, wrapping it up, and giving it to someone or even yourself is a gift."
Welcome to the first installment of Above the Fold! I’m very jazzed to introduce you to our first subject: Sandy Ho, the LA-based food stylist and private chef behind Sandita’s, a Venice-based food business that caters private events and offers direct-to-consumer and retail goodies1 like colorful fortune cookies stuffed with song lyrics, seedy loaves of bread, brightly frosted cakes bedecked with edible flowers, and—what we’ll be focusing on here—rainbow dumplings.
Sandy’s hand-rolled dumpling wrappers, colored with natural dyes made from vegetables, fruit, and even algae, make me think of sherbet-y sunsets and celestial objects. They form the stunning outer layer for dumplings that are deeply personal, informed by her Vietnamese upbringing in Australia, fine arts degree in painting and drawing, and extensive travels around the world.
Learn more about the Sandy and her work below—and scroll to the end of the interview for some bonus dumpling intel as well.
Q: To start, can you tell me a bit about Sandita’s and how it came to be?
A: My main work is as a private chef and I also do food styling. I am often cooking and making food to the liking of others, which I absolutely enjoy, but also there are times when I very much crave my food, which is fish sauce-heavy, it’s spicy, it’s got pork, it’s got a lot of unctuous flavor. Initially Sandita’s was a monthly dinner concept that I was doing in my backyard as a way for me to give back to the community2 and cook for people. A few months after I started doing those dinners, the pandemic hit. So Sandita’s quickly became an online project where I would make food out of my kitchen and post it on Instagram.
Were dumplings always part of the dinners you threw or did they show up further down the road?
They were always part of the dinners, and they would be different flavors and colors every week. Once the concept moved into more of a takeout-esque food delivery project, I just felt like dumplings were definitely what would last storage-wise, and in terms of their color and their process, something that could be made with so much love and care.
On your Instagram profile you mention that this is a project “from nostalgia.” What were your experiences growing up around dumplings?
From an early age I was always cooking with my mum. Rolling spring rolls and methodically wrapping dumplings was something that I found joy in even as a child. As I got older, I studied a degree in fine arts, and dumpling-making was something I would do in my spare time. After college I worked in restaurants during my time in New York, helping out friends who owned spots all over the city. Dumpling-making is something that I always gravitated to as a meditative practice outside of the restaurant—something I could show friends how to make and something I could make and keep in the freezer, gift, or bring to a gathering.
Leaving the art world and pursuing a career in the culinary world led me to travel all over the world via a company called The Sailing Collective in New York. I became their culinary director and I would travel to places like Italy, Thailand, and Spain. Everywhere I went I realized there was another version of a dumpling, something filled and formed into small pockets as gifts. Sometimes I would learn from another chef, other times I would just eat it or see it, get intrigued, and research how to make it. For me, just the process of making something, wrapping it up, and giving it to someone or even yourself is a gift. I’ve always loved engaging with them in any way.
Knowing you have such a wide variety of experiences that you are channeling into the food that you make, would you categorize the Sandita’s dumpling style in any specific way?
They definitely have inspiration and roots from the folds of culurgiones3 or Korean mandu, mainly in the aesthetic. The first dumpling I created for Sandita’s was the shrimp dumpling, so I wanted to create something that would reflect the shape of a shrimp, specifically for the dinners that I was hosting. I had never seen that shape or that fold before, so that is what I stuck with for originality. In terms of style taste-wise, I think that they are definitely more of a Chinese style of dumpling with Vietnamese flavors, depending on the filling. The pork has some essence of a Taiwanese soup dumpling in that it’s super juicy. But they are their own unique thing, and they draw a lot of inspiration from everywhere.
How much iterating did it take to land on this exact style, and what was that process like?
The process was alllll of quarantine (laughs). Usually I live in a fast-paced world and there’s always something happening, whether it’s food styling or cooking for a client or an event, and once that halted I had more time just to be in my kitchen and spend time experimenting and really engaging with my community and my farmers. Some weeks we would get so much kale. And other weeks we would get so many beets: I would pickle them, and then juice them, and then eventually use that juice to dye the dumplings. And then I used turmeric. It was probably about six months in total until I was at a point where I said, “Oh wow, I have something, and I really love it, and I really love doing it.”
Can you talk me through the process of making the wrappers and how you create those kinds of patterns and tie-dye effects?
My inspiration is absolutely going to the farmers market—to me it is the real, live tangible painter’s palette, whether it’s seeing oranges next to purples, or greens next to pinks. In terms of the colors, we use all-natural colors and those can come from turmeric, matcha, spinach juice, or kale juice. For pinks, I usually use beets. And it’s also been a long experimentation process of seeing what those colors look like once the dough cooks as well. There are days we feel that we want to make it more tie-dye, and we will add a pink that’s more pigmented next to a green that is really pigmented. Or there are days where we are feeling a little chill and we will use a softer pink next to a matcha green. For me that is part of the expression of it and part of the world that we want to welcome people into when they buy a Sandita’s product.
Are there certain fillings that you make every time, or are they ever-changing in the ways that the colors and patterns of the dough are?
We do three flavors at the moment. We do a spicy shrimp which is filled with wild-caught shrimp, serranos, scallions, cilantro, and oftentimes I love to add other market-driven flavors in there— we are in spring right now so I’m loving asparagus or peas. The second flavor we do is pork and kimchi which is something that is very close to my heart. I grew up in a small town in Australia called Belmore. I think we were only one of four Vietnamese families in our neighborhood; mostly it was Lebanese, Greek, and Samoan. Around the age of six, we saw a huge influx of Korean immigrants. There was a kimchi factory that opened up the road from us, and my mom knocked on their door, went in, and bought a bucket of kimchi from them. We had no idea what it was going to be like, and we had it for the first time as a family, and that was something that turned me on to discovery and openness pertaining to food. So pork and kimchi holds a very, very soft spot in my heart. The third filling we do is a shiitake mushroom and seasonal veg. I use ground shiitake mushrooms, and sometimes I’ll put maitakes in there for some more meatiness, as well as fresh ginger, scallions, cilantro, and really whatever is in season.
Are you the only person on your team that’s making the dumplings?
The whole of last year when I was kind of “in it” and doing the intensive of creating this it was just me until January of this year, when I welcomed 2 new staff members to the team who have in a short time helped me further shape Sandita’s to where it is now. It takes a lot of time. But I am, if I can say so myself, pretty fast at this stage. But especially in this moment where we are looking at scaling up, and we have a lot of interest from retailers reaching out wanting to do wholesale accounts, we are in a process of expanding the team4.
How many dumplings are you currently making per week?
Every week we are probably making 1200 dumplings.
And you were folding all of those yourself?
Yeah. But to be clear, I don’t think it’s the folding or the wrapping process that is impinging us in this moment, it’s purely storage. At the beginning of this it was very much me making everything at home, then we started to move into a commercial kitchen where we have more space for storage but even then, as we scale up even more, because these dumplings come raw-frozen, we can make as many as we want and it typically is about being able to store them somewhere. We are at this crossroads where we need to figure out what that investment looks like, whether that’s looking at co-packers, or looking at buying 10 industrial freezers.
Given your background in the arts, do you consider dumpling-making to be an art form?
I think it absolutely is an art form, and I think also there’s an art to taking the time to perfect something. Going back to my travels and experiences with all of these different dumplings and stuffed things from around the world, learning about these things and finding inspiration from everywhere and then being able to concisely formulate it into this one beautiful dumpling for me is art. It is a true reflection of who I am and what I do even though it’s a tiny little pocket of shrimp, or mushroom, or pork.
What is the future of Sandita’s looking like knowing there’s now a bigger audience for your dumplings?
I think my ultimate dream—I don’t know if you’re ready for this— is to find a way to combine the three things that I do at the moment. I would love to be able to find a space where I can have a studio set up for food styling, where I can create meals for my clients, where I can have a long table down the middle and create Sandita’s dinners, but also part of that space could have a dumpling factory, a space where we can have our products made.
That sounds like heaven.
Sounds like heaven to me, too. That’s my ultimate dream, and I truly in my heart and soul feel like I can be close to it and that it can happen. It’s just all of the nitty gritty things between now and then that need to be ironed out to get there.
Want to channel the Sandita’s vibes the next time you make dumplings of your own? Find Sandy Ho’s kitchen playlist right this way.
While I have you: Make dumplings for a cause!
Back in mid-March, Toronto-based blogger Jannell Lo of the food blog My BF is GF launched “Dump the Hate,” a virtual dumpling-making fundraiser encouraging participants to, simply, make any type of dumpling under the sun, sell them to close friends and family, and donate the proceeds to organizations that support the AAPI community. Since its inception, the initiative has raised $91,348 (CAD), a figure that represents over 36,000 dumplings. Better still? This fundraiser is indefinite. Find a ton of ideas for where to donate (as well as some awesome merch) in the above link.
I highly recommend doing a dumpling fundraiser! It’s really a win-win-win. You get an excuse to make an enormous quantity of dumplings (invite your friends, and practice those pleating skills), get to share something really special with your community, and turn an investment in ingredients into a much larger donation for an important cause. I went for it myself last spring, embarking on a pierogi fundraiser (my model: $35 for 35 from-scratch pierogis). I got a dozen-ish orders, plied my pals with deluxe homemade pierogis, and was able to support a beloved local shop (shout-out to Allium Market!) in the process by purchasing my ingredients there.
These pierogis, which I’ll get into the recipe weeds on another time, were for a fundraiser organized by Irene Li, owner of Mei Mei in Boston. Irene is someone who works tirelessly to support her local food community, from overseeing the Restaurant Resiliency Initiative at Commonwealth Kitchen to curating and selling folded and stuffed foods from local small businesses through Mei Mei’s Love Bundles. You’ll be hearing more from her in a future newsletter, but in the meantime I couldn’t end this one without a plug for Mei Mei’s just-launched NuMarket fundraiser which will support their transition from a restaurant to a…wait for it…DUMPLING COMPANY! That—ahem, non-Boston people—will ship nationally! Think about it this way: All of the money you pledge now will come back to you in the form of delicious dumplings later. A present-day dumpling gift from past-you? That’s a pretty excellent form of self-care if you ask me.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
Lucky LA denizens can find Sandita’s dumplings and bread at Wine + Eggs in Atwater Village, where they retail at $26 for a pack of 12, and order fortune cookies, cakes, catering, and more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A portion of proceeds from Sandita’s sales are donated to Center for the Pacific Asian Family. In solidarity and support, Above the Fold has made a donation here as well.
Culurgiones are a Sardinian style of stuffed pasta filled with potatoes and pecorino. They’re also known for their beautiful braided fold. Have a stressful day? Watch this.